For the past 30 years, left-right debate over America's wars has traveled a well-worn rut. The left says whatever war is in question is "another Vietnam," while the right denies it. After three decades of being serially wrong, in the Iraq War liberals might be making their first-ever correct diagnosis.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face a vicious insurgency that has worn down the will of the American public. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have failed to cut off the enemy from re-supply. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had ever-shifting military strategies. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had trouble building effective, clean governmental institutions in the soil of an alien culture. Most importantly, in Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face the prospect of defeat.
The consequences of that defeat would be remarkably similar to those in the wake of Vietnam. The prestige of the U.S. government would sink around the world, emboldening our enemies and creating a period of American doubt and retreat. A humanitarian catastrophe would likely befall Iraq, just as it did Vietnam. The only significant difference is that in Iraq, radical Islamists harbor ambitions to come to our shores and kill Americans, whereas the Viet Cong never wanted to follow us home.
The American domestic political scene already has the hallmarks of Vietnam redux. The Democrats are waging an intraparty civil war to marginalize supporters of the war, and they revile President Bush as much as they did President Nixon. Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping that the Democrats lurch too far in their dovishness and will, once again, discredit themselves on national security for a generation.
The paradox is that Republicans are seeking to win the midterm elections on national security at the same time they are losing, or at least not obviously winning, a major war. This can't help but hurt the GOP, no matter how much weakness and incoherence there is among the Ned Lamont Democrats.
The two parties have clashing imperatives in the Iraq debate. The Democrats want to a wage a fight over the war in retrospect, emphasizing Bush administration missteps that have become a matter of conventional wisdom while declining to make any positive prescriptions that might divide their party or expose unpopular positions (e.g., an immediate pullout). The Republicans have to fight in prospect, avoiding the losing debate over the past while convincing people they have a plausible strategy for success and the Democrats have none.